Today is the yahrtzeit of Rav Chaim Stein zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Telshe-Cleveland, who lived a life totally devoted to Torah and the perpetuation of Torah. A gaon in Torah and a gadol in middos, our generation was fortunate to have someone of such stature living in our very midst.
The rosh yeshiva, who was in his high nineties at the time of his petirah, gave his life to Torah and devoted his very being to the perpetuation of the mesorah of Telshe with which he was raised. His true home was Telshe Yeshiva in Wickliffe, Ohio, where the rosh yeshiva spent his days and his nights. Kol yemei chayov, Rav Chaim could be found between the hallowed walls of the yeshiva hakedoshah in Cleveland for Shacharis, Minchah and Maariv and for the many hours in between, as he immersed himself in his lifelong occupation: limud haTorah and harbotzas haTorah. As one of the last remaining links to the bygone world of pre-war Europe, Rav Chaim served as a beacon of light and inspiration to the entire Olam Hatorah and the wider frum community.
Rav Chaim, in his youth, learned at the Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania. During the early years of World War II, Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz, the roshei yeshiva of Telshe, were in the United States on a fundraising mission. As the war broke out, their only option to ensure the survival of the yeshiva was to transfer the yeshiva to American soil.
In October 1940, a group of Telshe talmidim led by Rav Stein escaped from war-ravaged Lithuania as it was overrun by the Nazis. This daring flight took place on Shabbos, as related by Rav Chaim many times. The hanhalah of the yeshiva, their families, and most of the talmidim left behind in Europe were killed in Lithuania by the Nazi forces and Lithuanian collaborators, yemach shemom. Escaping to Russia as war raged in Eastern Europe, another war was taking place in the Pacific, the very direction that the talmidim led by Rav Stein were headed. In June 1941, Rav Chaim led the group to Russia where they were sent to Siberia.
The talmidim eventually achieved safe passage via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Far East. The group had somehow acquired visas from the renowned Chiune Sugihara, and they became beneficiaries of his admirable action to risk his life so that many people from war-torn Europe were given the opportunity to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. The group found its way to the United States in early 1941.
Once reunited with their roshei yeshiva, Rav Bloch and Rav Katz, they eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was from that time until his last year that Rav Chaim spent his days in the legendary Telshe Yeshiva, growing from a young talmid chochom and maggid shiur to the senior rosh yeshiva of his generation.
Rav Stein’s rebbetzin was a daughter of Rav Moshe Yehudah Leib Zaks. Together, they established a home permeated with Torah and yirah.
A short tribute such as this cannot aptly describe the radiance and total immersion in Torah that personified the rosh yeshiva. Nor can mere words depict his selflessness and the manner in which he gave of himself for others throughout his life.
During his last years, it was Rav Chaim who made arduous trips across the United States to raise funds to ensure the vitality of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. The tremendous burden carried on the shoulders of the nonagenarian rosh yeshiva to ensure that the Telshe maggidei shiur were paid would have been daunting for someone half a century his junior.
The rosh yeshiva‘s koach haTorah was recognized by the thousands who petitioned him for brachos for gezunt and yeshuos. In his humility, Rav Chaim never understood why people approached him for brachos, but he doled out words of chizuk and bracha generously. Anything for another Yid.
One summer, a person came to Rav Chaim and told him that he has a daughter who is about 30 years old and wishes to travel a bit to “air out” and clear her mind. The parsha of shidduchim had been a difficult one to that point, and it was thought that a trip would be beneficial for her. The question posed to the rosh yeshiva was whether embarking on such a trip during the Three Weeks was permissible. Rav Chaim responded, “Vos hertzach mit a shidduch? What’s going on with a shidduch?” The father responded that at that point nothing was on the horizon. Rav Chaim then said to the girl, “Oib du vilst, if you want, you will become a kallah this year.” The father was flabbergasted. “Rosh yeshiva,” he said to Rav Chaim, “there are only two months left to the year and, like we said, no one’s on the horizon.” Rav Chaim repeated, “Oib du vilst, if you want, you will become a kallah this year.” Indeed, a short while later, in the middle of Elul, this girl became a kallah.
It was clear that the koach haTorah and the pure service to Hashem of this adam gadol served as a special zechus for this girl.
Our link to the Torah world of Lithuania in which Rav Stein was raised is now gone. Those who saw and heard from one of the last remnants of that world should consider themselves fortunate. Rav Chaim connected us to the greatness of that world. And now he is gone.
On occasion, Rav Chaim told a personal story of dedication to mitzvos. During World War II, as Rav Chaim was escaping from the Nazis, he was on the aforementioned train traveling across the Soviet Union together with his lifelong friend, Rav Meir Zelig Mann zt”l. When Chanukah arrived, they went outside each day to collect grease from the wheels of the train and use it for neiros Chanukah. During the week of Chanukah, the train broke down and they were stranded. One day, it was so cold, that the grease was frozen and could not be scraped off. Rav Chaim and Rav Meir Zelig were despondent at being unable to fulfill the mitzvah. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door of their car and there stood a man selling candles!
Rav Chaim used to say that this was no miracle, and it was not Eliyahu Hanovi. Rather, when Hashem saw how much they desired the mitzvah, and how much they were moser nefesh for it, He sent them an opportunity to fulfill it. That was the way Rav Chaim viewed everything that occurred in his life. He viewed himself simply, and he saw everything that transpired as being directly orchestrated by the Yad Hashem.
He himself served as a faithful emissary of the Ribono Shel Olam, showing, by example, how one is to conduct oneself in bringing kevod Shomayim to this world.
May we merit to emulate the great Telshe rosh yeshiva and may he serve as a meilitz yosher for all the members of Klal Yisroel whom he loved so much.
Rav Stein left behind a beautiful mishpacha of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren following in his ways. His children are Rav Shmuel Zalman Stein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Birkas Chaim of Lakewood; Rav Binyomin Moshe Stein of Cleveland; Mrs. Levin, wife of Rav Menachem Levin of Telshe Yeshiva; and Mrs. Tziporah Weinberg, wife of Rav Matis Weinberg. He was predeceased by his son, Rav Shalom Refoel Yehuda Stein zt”l.